Dates have been cultivated in Israel for thousands of years. Today they are one of the nation’s most important crops, grown in the Jordan River Valley south through the Arava region to Eilat. The arid climate in both regions is perfect for growing very high quality dates.
The date harvest takes place in late summer when daytime temperatures are scorching. Farmers must harvest the dates at night when the fruit cools and hardens enough to be handled without damage.
The Israel Date Growers’ Cooperative, known as Hadiklaim (Hebrew for date trees), is the largest exporters of dates. The moshavim (villages) and kibbutzim in the cooperative co-own state-of-the-art packing houses and market their dates together.
The dates from Hadiklaim that we sell at Israeli Harvest are fresh dates. Many people who don’t like dates have only tried dried dates. With dates, freshness is not so much a matter of how recently the date came off the tree but rather whether the dates were stored at a cool enough temperature to keep them from drying out. If refrigerated near 45 degrees, dates stay moist and delicious for well over a year.
Dates earn their spot among the ranks of superfoods. Full of iron, potassium and other minerals, they are a very healthy alternative to sweets with processed sugar. They can be used in desserts, as well as main dishes and snacks.
Big, incredibly sweet and even better stuffed with mascarpone cheese, medjools are the best-known type of date. Deglet nour dates, on the other hand, are underappreciated. This is probably because in American stores you often find dry, low-grade delget nour dates smashed together in bulk bins.
Top-quality deglet nour dates are just as delectable as medjools. The very moist ones from Hadiklaim come on long stems and have a complex sweetness that no candy can match.
Each year we receive dates from a different kibbutz or moshav in the Hadiklaim cooperative. This year the deglet nour dates came from Kibbutz Samar in the southern Arava.
More than twenty years ago, I visited Kibbutz Samar and met Bryan Medwed, an American oleh (immigrant to Israel) and one of the first people to advocate solar energy for the sun-rich region. Bryan constructed a model solar array at Kibbutz Samar and played a key early role in the Arava region becoming home to giant solar fields such as the one at nearby Kibbutz Ketura. His death in 2002 while driving to deliver a wind turbine to a Bedouin village was a huge loss to the Arava desert and to Israel.
Prior to becoming a solar power pioneer, Bryan worked in the Kibbutz Samar date orchard. I recall how the lucrative date harvest amused him: “Just ten guys in dirty t-shirts harvesting thousands of dollars in dates.”
Tu b’Shevat, which has become a Jewish Earth day and which is celebrated with dates, one of the biblical seven species, is a good time to think of Bryan. Remembering him makes the dates from Kibbutz Samar even sweeter.